Darren Walker

President, Ford Foundation,
A Philanthropic Journey: A Conversation with Darren Walker

October 2014
by Susan Wampler

At The USC Center on Philanthropy and Public Policy (The Center) Distinguished Speakers Series luncheon on October 31, Ford Foundation President Darren Walker discussed the early life experiences that fired his passion for helping others, the value of leadership and culture, and his insights into how philanthropic organizations can maximize their impact.

Walker recounted his journey in an enlightening interview conducted by Weingart Foundation President and CEO, and Center Board of Advisors Chair, Fred Ali. The event drew an audience of more than 200 philanthropists, foundation trustees and executives, nonprofit and government leaders, and numerous faculty and students.

Born in a charity hospital in Louisiana and raised by a single mother in rural Texas, Walker recalled a visitor knocking on their door to enroll him in a new program: Head Start. “Although it is known as a government program, [it] started with research from the Ford Foundation,” he noted.

Referencing what he referred to as the invisible hand of philanthropy, Walker said that “The Ford Foundation has been in my life through[out] the journey.” Walker has served as president of the nation’s second-largest philanthropy since July 2013. He served as its vice president for education, creativity, and free expression from 2010 to 2013 and previously was vice president for foundation initiatives at the Rockefeller Foundation.

During his first year as president, Walker traveled 125,000 miles, meeting with grantees that the foundation supports and visiting the philanthropy’s 10 international offices, which employ 470 people.

“What I learned was, all over the world, the trend that binds us regrettably is inequality,” Walker said. “In the United States, the implications are profound for our democracy. In other parts of the world that have weaker democracies … that inequality is creating and reinforcing the worst elements of those cultures.”

He cited his visit to the foundation’s Beijing office, where he met with groups advocating for access to health care and for the right of children to go to school. He mentioned the building boom in urban China and its juxtaposition with slum-like dwellings. “For a global foundation that seeks to look at global trends and problems, something like inequality is an easy thing to want to focus on, particularly for a social justice foundation,” he said.

From his early support to his later success, Walker told the audience his trajectory “has been animated by the intersection” of the public and private sectors. He explained, for example, that his college education was made possible by a government Pell grant and a privately endowed scholarship. “What’s so amazing about America is that we have the capacity to harness the public and private in ways like nowhere else.”

Walker also described the philanthropy’s involvement in moving Detroit beyond bankruptcy into a brighter, sustainable future by joining with other foundations to raise $400 million in one month. “Foundations are very relationship-driven,” he said. “We all knew each other from the community of philanthropy.” Even so, state government had to play its role, he explained. “There had to be a public commitment from the governor. I called the [bankruptcy] judge and said, ‘You have to speak to the governor and tell him that this deal is going to fall apart because the foundations are standing fast together.’ It was the group of foundations who just put the pressure on, and we would not give up.”

That effort took focused leadership and an understanding of the roles each sector needed to play. Walker also shared insights into his own leadership approach. He stressed the importance of building a team with strong core competencies, and then letting them do their job. But when it comes to setting the institutional culture, that must come from the top, he said. “The vice presidents can reinforce the culture, but they don’t have the agency to actually establish it and to articulate it, to drive it, to call it out, to model it. So that’s what I’m focused on.”

He elaborated on the importance of leadership and vision at the board level as well. “If you have a board that sees its role expansively and not through a set of narrow program areas [but as] a change agent for the community, you get bold thinking,” he said.

Walker also emphasized the need for foundations to reorient how they view themselves. “We are ambitious as a sector,” he said. “We want to make a difference. But the mistake we make is to put ourselves at the center of the process and to not understand that ultimately the change that we need requires durable, sustainable institutions.”

At the close of the event, Walker praised the work of The Center and its director, James M. Ferris, the Emery Evans Olson Chair in Nonprofit Entrepreneurship at the USC Sol Price School of Public Policy. “You don’t run a think tank, you run a ‘do’ tank,” Walker said. “You’ve got to have action attached to research,” he added, citing as an example a report on philanthropic and governmental partnerships that Ferris presented at the White House. “That’s real impact. You all should be so proud that you have this resource in Southern California. It’s a huge, huge asset for you as philanthropists,” he added, addressing the crowd.

The Center’s Distinguished Speakers Series provides a venue for leading policymakers, foundation executives, and philanthropists to share their views from different vantage points. Conversations address changing trends in philanthropy, the resulting implications for public problem solving, and how to raise the field’s profile.

This Distinguished Speakers Series luncheon was generously sponsored by the Goldman Sachs Philanthropy Fund.